Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.), whose pithy comments have made him a favorite among congressional reporters, was tight-lipped Wednesday when asked how Republicans would have reacted if President Barack Obama was accused of having had an affair with a porn star.
After starting to walk away, Kennedy quickly turned back to a reporter with an urgent clarification: His comments were not intended to reflect poorly on President Trump.
And so it went Wednesday in the wake of the latest development in the Stormy Daniels saga — a lawsuit from the adult film star arguing that her hush-money arrangement not to talk about an alleged affair was null and void because Trump never signed it.
Most Republicans on Capitol Hill sought to avoid the topic altogether, while those who were willing to talk about it were careful not to criticize Trump for allegations that would have sent previous White Houses into a tailspin.
On Wednesday, headlines about Daniels were competing against a cacophony of other news coming out of a chaotic White House, including expected trade tariffs, senior staff departures and new developments in the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
At an afternoon briefing, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders sought to deflect repeated questions about Daniels. “Look, the president has addressed these directly and made very well clear that none of these allegations are true,” Sanders said.
When asked if Trump knew that lawyer Michael Cohen had paid Daniels $130,000 shortly before the 2016 election, Sanders responded, “Not that I’m aware of.” Daniels says the payment was aimed at buying her silence about a decade-old dalliance.
Sanders also claimed Wednesday that an arbitration process had already been “won in the president’s favor.”
That was an apparent reference to Cohen seeking arbitration on Feb. 27 to resolve the dispute with Daniels over the nondisclosure deal. The appointed arbitrator issued a temporary restraining order to keep Daniels from talking about the deal, according to people familiar with the matter.
Lawrence S. Rosen, an attorney for Cohen, said the agreement contained an arbitration clause that allowed them to seek an injunction in the event of a breach.
An attorney for Daniels, Michael Avenatti, said a claim of victory was overstated because there was no actual determination on the merits and Trump is not a party to the confidential arbitration.
Among the few Republicans willing to engage on the issue Wednesday was Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), who was at the center of a scandalous affair himself in 2009, disappearing for days with his mistress while he was his state’s governor.
“I think we all ought to call it for what it is, which is it’s deeply troubling,” Sanford said of the allegations aimed at Trump.
“If it was a Democratic president and hush money had been paid in the campaign, would there be a series of hearings going on?” Sanford asked. “I think you could probably point to a fair number of indicators that suggest there would be.”
Lanny Davis, a onetime lawyer for former president Bill Clinton, said Wednesday that Republicans are guilty of “utter hypocrisy” in their disparate treatment of sexual indiscretions by Trump and Clinton, who faced impeachment proceedings in 1998 in connection with his affair with a White House intern.
Davis noted that Clinton eventually apologized to the country and to his family, adding: “I have never seen Donald Trump come even close to doing that, nor do I believe there is even a remote possibility that he will ever do that.”
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), who represents the hub of the porn industry, the San Fernando Valley, said so much of Trump’s personal life has already spilled into view that the Daniels story doesn’t seem to be breaking through.
“If this was any other political figure, they’d be writing their resignation speech now,” Sherman said. “But this is Donald Trump, and he is subject to a different set of rules.”
Barry Bennett, a Republican consultant who advised Trump during the 2016 election, said he didn’t think the latest development would faze Trump supporters.
“Everyday, it’s something else,” Bennett said, adding: “A porn star clamoring for public attention is not a very sympathetic figure.”
Regardless, it’s a subject most in Trump’s party are not eager to discuss in the run-up to this year’s midterm elections, when turnout by pro-Trump voters could be critical in some races.
Heading into a Senate GOP luncheon on Wednesday, a reporter asked Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) if she could seek his reaction to Daniels suing the president.
“You may certainly may ask it,” Alexander said. When asked, though, he just chuckled, and then headed to lunch.
When Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) was asked if he had any reaction to the lawsuit, he said: “No, uh-uh, I don’t.” Hoeven then smiled and offered to discuss trade instead.
After the luncheon, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) spent several minutes detailing his concerns with Trump’s proposed tariffs on steel and aluminum, saying such moves would adversely affect the manufacturing sector in his state.
But he took a pass on the question of how Republicans would respond to a liaison between Obama and an adult film star.
“No comment,” Johnson said with a chuckle. “Any other questions?”
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) was similarly silent when asked about the Daniels lawsuit.
“Oh, I don’t know anything about it,” he said. “I really don’t. I don’t know anything about it, and that’s the best way to comment on that.”
While some Democrats were eager to exploit the latest Daniels development, others seemed determined to remain silent, too.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) was asked about the lawsuit at an event promoting a Democratic plan to spend more than $1 trillion on roads, bridges and other key infrastructure.
“I’m not going to comment on that issue,” Schumer said. “We want to stick to infrastructure.”
Beth Reinhard, Erica Werner and Paul Kane contributed to this report